Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ring Psychology #2 "Stone Cold..."

So just how does professional wrestling help inform my idea of presenting a character in fiction?  Last time I discussed the idea of ego and how it's perhaps the dominant feature of wrestling.  Seems kind of obvious.  But let's see it in action.

Better yet, in the form of Steve Austin!

One of the longstanding forums of the wrestling fan community is Pro Wrestling Illustrated, a magazine that has covered the wrestling scene since 1979.  Since 1991, it's presented the PWI 500, a compilation of the top wrestlers each year.  If you assume Steve Austin didn't crack the top ten of that list until his best days late in the '90s, you'd be wrong.  In fact, he made his first appearance in 1992.

What was Austin doing in 1992, and how is this at all relevant to the idea of character, much less writing fiction?  He was competing for World Championship Wrestling, and about two years into his career.  He had matches against the likes of such respected wrestlers as Bobby Eaton (best known for competing in the tag team the Midnight Express), Barry Windham, and Ricky Steamboat.  PWI normally compiles its annual list half on the basis of wrestlers who have had a successful year as a personality and half for those who have simply been the best wrestlers that year.  Austin would have made the cut that year as a wrestler.

Two years later he cracked the top ten again.  1994 was his final year in WCW, which famously decided that Austin had gone about as far as he would likely go, a relatively unexceptional talent having reached his peak.  In the year previous Austin'd had an unexpected breakthrough when he was thrown into a tag team with Brian Pillman.  The Hollywood Blonds weren't expected to accomplish anything but fill up space on the card, but unexpectedly they clicked, and it was Austin's first taste of developing a character.  But by 1994 he was on his own again, back on cards opposite Steamboat, whose career came to a premature end thanks to a back injury.

Then Paul Heyman's Extreme Championship Wrestling called, and Austin had his first chance to unleash himself as a character, a classic example of a bitter wrestler who felt betrayed by a major promotion.  He gave some of his first biting promos in this period, but his long hair in these initial appearances proved we were still going to be waiting for the Austin even those who have never followed professional wrestling (or at least admitted to it) would recognize.

After a few months in ECW, Austin was recruited by World Wrestling Entertainment (at that time it was still known as WWF, because those pesky pandas had not yet objected loudly enough).  When he debuted for WWE, Austin was was similar to what he'd been in WCW.  He was billed as "the Ringmaster" and his main distinguishing mark was serving as the new "million dollar champion" thanks to an association with Ted DiBiase.

And then he became "Stone Cold."

In fact, he was in this new mode for a little while before the 1996 King of the Ring tournament, which was the event that would transform his career forever.  On his way to winning the tournament, Austin found himself pitted again Jake "the Snake" Roberts, who at that time had a character whose main feature was thumping his Bible as a born-again Christian.  After Austin beat Jake, he cut one of the most famous promos in wrestling history.  "Talk about psalms, talk about John 3:16...Austin 3:16 says I just..."  Suffice to say, but the rest of that quote is not fit for a family-friendly blog (which hopefully this one is).  Anyway, it immediately repositioned Austin into one of the most dynamic personalities of the company.

And personality has a lot to do with character.  What Austin had always lacked was a true personality.  He may have had a character.  To be a wrestler is to be able to present a character in a match, even a rudimentary one.  But to give personality to that character is to give it potential in any given scenario.  From the moment Austin pushed himself off the aging Jake Roberts, he was distancing himself from everything he had ever been, and everything every other wrestler had ever been.  He built a new template, a new narrative in wrestling.

A new story.

And it took a while for the story to develop.  At first, WWE had no idea what to do with the new "Stone Cold."  The rest of 1996 didn't really have much to say about this emerging development.  Bret Hart was the guy, ironically enough, who helped Austin along.  Hart was one of the few wrestlers in WWE at that time who could give Austin the kind of match he'd accomplished in his WCW heyday, a real old-school technical classic.  Hart's most famous match in 1996 was his hour-long main event against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12.  The rivalry between Hart and Michaels was real enough that their respective egos would come close to destroying both careers.  Hart walked away for a good portion of 1996 to give Michaels plenty of room to grow as champion, and he returned in time to find that it was Austin who was creating the biggest buzz.

Of course, in 1996 the story of the year was in WCW with the New World Order.  Of all possible ironies this was a story arc that would have been perfect for Steve Austin, especially as he was finally emerging into "Stone Cold" that year.

Except Austin was in WWE, competing with Bret Hart.  It wasn't until 1997's WrestleMania 13 that Austin and Hart really distinguished themselves in this feud.  When Austin refused to submit to Hart's famous Sharpshooter, he passed out in a pool of his own blood (just go with it), creating an indelible image that proved far bigger than anything else that happened that night.  Later in the year, Austin's career nearly ended at the hands of Bret's brother, the late Owen Hart, when Own dropped Austin on his head.  The resulting trauma to Austin's neck would later shorten his career (much as what had happened to Steamboat's), but wouldn't be enough to stop what would become the story of 1998.

So, 1998.  The year they finally figured out what to do with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.  This is what writing about character and professional wrestling is all about.  The employee versus the boss.  That's the story Austin fell into (thanks in large part to how Hart and Michaels settled their feud in the final months of 1997), with WWE owner Vince McMahon becoming a character himself in order to present a clear storyline, because the success of this story was as much what Austin did in a wrestling match as what he did outside of it, a conflict between himself and McMahon that built for months.

Austin dominated 1998.  By 1999, WWE was smart enough to develop a number of other wrestlers to compete in the main event, among them "The Rock" Dwayne Johnson, Mick Foley, and Triple H.  While Austin's antics continued much as they'd been going, his neck was bothering him enough to require a lengthy hiatus for surgery.  By the time he returned in 2000, he needed new purpose.  He set his sights on the man the storyline had held responsible for his time away from the ring, Triple H, and then Austin did the unthinkable in 2001, which was actually join forces with McMahon, his previous mortal enemy.

Truthfully, a lot of fans still have a hard time figuring that one out.  They never understood how the Austin from 1998-1999 could even entertain the idea, much less act on it.  The thing is, it's all about the needs of the character.  An Austin who was one-dimensional would have kept doing the same thing.  But Austin had enjoyed enough of a taste of mainstream success (at one point he was a recurring guest star on Nash Bridges) that he felt comfortable expanding what his wrestling persona could do.  Instead of just the angry loner who rebelled against everyone and everything, he could interact with others a little more directly, even while he kept a comfortable distance.  And he could even be funny.

By 2002, his need to be in the main event whenever he was an active part of the roster had diminished, something Austin had been working on since his heyday.  But even Austin had a problem with that by then.  He took a backseat when The Rock battled Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania that year.  Attempts to put him in a feud with Ric Flair similar to the one he'd had with McMahon weren't enough to keep him amused, nor the idea that he become easy fodder to the emerging Brock Lesnar.  So he walked away.  He was never an active member of the roster again.

In 2003, however, he staged a year-long comeback as a personality, acting of all things as an authority figure, amusingly in direct opposition to Eric Bischoff, who shared this role with him.  This Austin combined the earlier "Stone Cold" character with the later one.

What can you learn from Steve Austin?  That character is something that needs context.  Sometimes the context works and sometimes it doesn't.  Most of the time you'll be able to see if the character is working, even if you need a little extra work for the character to truly shine, to be at its very best.  Austin was always a notable wrestling commodity, but there was a brief period where he was untouchable, because he was presented in his best possible context.  It's all about knowing how this character works against that character.  That's professional wrestling in a nutshell.  When it works, it really works.

Most of us know the epiphany of creating a character who truly speaks to our sensibilities as a writer.  The trick of being a good writer is knowing the difference between the idea as it is in your head and how the idea works in an actual story.  There's always a difference.  A truly good concept can work despite awful execution, because it'll have been presented just well enough that the concept speaks for itself.  A truly good story is a concept that's executed perfectly.  Usually in fiction the concept is the central character.  Sometimes it's the premise, but in the majority of fiction it's character.  And it's the same in wrestling.

So that's what you can learn from a guy called "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ring Psychology #1 "Id, Ego, Super-ego"

I don't know how many of these I'll actually be doing, but this is going to be my way of justifying a love of professional wrestling, even as a person who takes storytelling very seriously.  It can be done.  You may have to humor me a bit...

We'll start this improbable journey with a discussion on ego.  Ego as most people understand it is basically the same as pride, what we assume for ourselves based on what we know about ourselves, our personal achievements and relative worth in society.  For instance, Kanye West has a massive ego.  You know exactly what I mean.  It's generally considered to be a negative term.

But ego can be broken into three parts.  The first is the most formative of them, and is basically what dogs and cats (and a comic strip wizard) have in this regard: the id.  This form of ego is what we start with, our reactive response to the world, the one we have no real control over, what we're born with and the basic toolbox we use as we first begin to experience life.

The second is the ego, which is what we use to internalize course-corrections as our id begins to have cumulative experiences with the world, or in other words it's not a matter of offense but defense.  It's the football players trying to keep the other team from scoring, rather than the team trying to reach the brightly-painted endzone.

The third is the super-ego!  No, this is not a superhero.  This is not Tony Stark, Iron Man.  No (but close).  Instead, this is the social form of the ego, the one that's shaped by others, be it parents or acquaintances we develop.  It's also a kind of defense!  It's the ego of conformity!

And so you might say that the ego most people think about is the id.  But the funny thing is, it's probably far less important than you think it is.

I'll give you some examples.  My four-year-old nephew got some really awesome Lego presents for Christmas.  I was playing with him, and stuck a plastic hot dog into a shark's mouth, because y'know sharks love hot dogs.  That's what I tried to tell him anyway.  You hear all the time that kids are so impressionable.  His natural response should have been to run with the concept.  Which is what he did.  In his own way.  He stuck a little plastic tool in the shark's mouth repeatedly after that, even after I kept trying to sell the hot dog concept.  His id would have re-enforced exactly what he'd been doing all along, which was sticking to the preformed concepts Lego had developed for each part.  His super-ego would have told him to take my advice.  His ego led him to do whatever it was he'd developed on his own.

At work, egos are always a huge matter.  The best way to get someone to like you is to give them a compliment.  When you demonstrate that you not only respect someone but in a specific way you're acknowledging their ego, not super-ego or id, but what they've been developing for themselves based on their own experiences.  This is not to say they're overly proud of whatever they think of themselves.  Although certainly plenty of people are.  But that in order to feel comfortable, people like to be shown a little respect in whatever way they've earned it, whatever is most important to them.  (So when you're getting to know someone, that's probably where you should start.)

What does all of this have to do with professional wrestling?  What's sometimes derided as a "male soap opera"?  It has everything to do with the ego, as outlined here.  Not the "my muscles are bigger than your muscles" kind of way, which is what a very superficial interpretation of professional wrestling would suggest, but a delicate tightrope of highly trained professional athletes being able to project whatever their personality is and how it compares to someone else's.

And, so I'll argue, a great way to understand character.  But we'll get to that.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Return to Space Corps...

For something that doesn't really exist yet, I sure talk a lot about my Space Corps project...

Actually, a lot of this blog is about that, because I have a lot of things I've actually written that hasn't been released yet.  As with all the Space Corps talk, it's my own naive idea of letting my readers know about things I may only hope a lot of people will be talking about later.

Most of Space Corps hasn't been written yet.  It's dominated my creative development, but that doesn't mean most of what I've written has been Space Corps material.  I know plenty of writers who wouldn't even consider working like that.  If they have a passion project, they have mostly certainly devoted themselves to seeing it become a reality.  Maybe it's because of the way I originally approached it, but Space Corps has almost been too important to rush into reality.

I've got a whole series of books plotted.  I wasn't even particularly plotting books originally, when I worked on them.  It was a later adaptation of the ideas, when I realized quite stupidly that I should have been thinking of them that way all along.  And later, when I began writing book manuscripts, I only wished I had outlines that extensive.  It would have made writing them infinitely simpler.  But it would probably have also affected the outcomes in other ways.  I wrote other manuscripts in part to develop my writer's voice.  That proved to be essential when I finally wrote the first of the Space Corps adventures.  By that point I thought I had given shape to the whole saga.  I'd already completed the outline of what I thought of the time as the last story.

Recently, though, I realized there was room for one more, and quite an essential one at that.  Central to the whole saga is the relationship between humanity and the aliens known as the Danab.  In the original adventures I had already gotten past the period of their initial conflict.  As I moved back and forth on the timeline I never quite went back to that inciting event.  I started writing a few short stories that gave it shape, however, and so the idea finally planted itself in my head.  And so I knew I had to tackle the First Danab War after all.

A little like Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, however, this is a story that will take place from the perspective of the "enemy."  I put that word in quotations, because one of the things I've learned as I've written my various manuscripts, is that I rarely let the bad guy off in a strictly one-dimensional way.  I don't know how it'll work, and I'm excited to see how this story further develops for exactly this reason, but approaching what for humanity in this saga is the defining event of history from a different point of view struck me as the only way to do it.  I avoided writing it for so long, for me personally it would have felt wrong to simply write the straight version.

Again, this is talking about something you won't see for years, probably, if you ever see it at all.  But I see this as the great benefit of being a creator, that you don't even necessarily need the approval of the public to be excited for your own work.  I just figured I'd make a note of this particular breakthrough.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

IWSG January 2014

I'm experiencing a small hiccup in my WIP, In the Land of Pangaea.

I've completed the first and largest section of the manuscript, and that's all well and good.  That's the most important part of the story.  The section I haven't started yet is the shortest.  But it might also be the trickiest.  You see, I'm writing about Hurricane Katrina.  The main characters are black.

I am not myself black.  I've written black main characters before.  Actually, the whole cast of characters in Cloak of Shrouded Men is black, basically (it really only becomes apparent in the third section of that one, but I treat it as a complete nonissue otherwise).  I've written other ethnic characters, too, such as Yoshimi.  Katrina is a major exception to this rule, though.  It's a topic that breached a considerable amount of controversy in the halls of American racial identity.  Then-President Bush was accused of responding slowly to the devastation it caused because it affected mostly blacks.

This is something I will have to address.  For whatever reason, Katrina has stuck with me, even though I've never lived anywhere near the affected area, never had family even remotely close until last year when my brother and his wife moved to Louisiana (although far away from any relevant locations).  It was another of those epochal moments in Bush's presidency.  Don't hate me when I say I have a favorable opinion of him.  People tend to react negatively to bad situations (for some reason!), and they always look for someone to blame.  I've tended to believe that Bush got the reaction he did to that moment because of this instinct.

Be that as it may, it is something I need to address in the story.  Some of it I've drawn from the excellent movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, which doesn't really address the racial undertones of Katrina's impact even though it features a mostly black cast.  The main character in this section of Pangaea is mostly concerned with locating his missing wife after they're separated during the storm.

But he will have to address the same thing Spike Lee did in When the Levees Broke.  The government response to the disaster was found to be inadequate.  I tend to get inside the head of my characters.  This will have to factor into the main character's thinking, no matter what else he may focus on.

Am I at all qualified to address such things?  The fact that I've been thinking about Katrina since it hit in 2005 means I still have to process it for myself.  It's not surprising that it ended up in the plotting of one of my stories.  At the very least it will be one of my biggest challenges to date, to do justice to something that drastically changed so many lives and unexpectedly spoke to far more than a conversation about severely bad weather.

I hope I'm up to the task.  Sometimes it's hard just to represent my own people, if you'll allow me to talk about ethnic identity in a broader context.  I've written before about being a Franco American who feels he's a generation removed from understanding what that means.  That will play a part in the third section of Pangaea, certainly.  I've never written a manuscript, part or a whole, from this perspective.  A large part of the reason I wanted to write Pangaea at all was so I could finally do that.  Maybe writing about Katrina will help make that easier.

I don't know.  I can only try.
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